Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Few More Details on Wyman the Wizard

Today, I'm once again exploring the life of John Wyman, known as Wyman the Wizard. I have written about Wyman before, but I continue to find new information that is quiet revealing. He was born in 1816 in Albany NY. His career as an entertainer began simply enough as a mimic. He could reproduce the sound of people's voices as well as animal sounds to such a degree people thought they were listening to the real thing. How this transferred to magic is not known, but before long he became a full fledged magician and mimicry was only a small part of his show.

The book, Annals of Conjuring says that Wyman was the first U.S. born magician to attain prominence. And the Illustrated History of Magic says that "he was the biggest money maker of the period." John Mullholland writing in The Sphinx, says "he was the first American-born magician to present a full evening's stage performance". 

John Mullholland actually reveals a number of surprising details about Wyman. Mullholland claims that Wyman was the first magician to include spiritualistic/mediumistic effects in his programs. He also claims that  in 1857, when the Boston Courier was investigating the Fox Sisters, Wyman was chosen as one of the people to be on the committee. And probably due to Wyman's participation on the committee, no reward was given out to the Fox Sisters.

I first became interested in Wyman when I learned he lived and performed often in my area,
Odd Fellows Hall Today
Washington D.C.. Wyman performed for Presidents Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore and performed numerous times for President Abraham Lincoln. As I mentioned in a previous article, one of the effects presented to Lincoln was the Cap & Pence, where several coins would mysteriously pass through the hand of a spectator, in this case, through Mr. Lincoln's hands. Those coins now reside in the collection/museum of David Copperfield. 

 Wyman lived on 6th St in Washington D.C. for a period of time. And his regular performance spot was a place called The Odd Fellows Hall, which was located at 419 7th St N.W Washington, almost exactly half way between the Capital Building and The White House.

One of the most fascinating things to me was Wyman's Gift Show. This was a show in which every ticket holder received some sort of gift. According to reports, these were often very nice gifts as well. I wonder how he worked this out financially to be able to provide quality gifts to every single person in the audience and still make a profit from his performances.

Wyman did make quite a huge profit in his lifetime. He was one of the few magicians in history to make a lot of money and keep it until his death. He also wrote an autobiography which was never published. The manuscript was apparently sent to George M. Cohan shortly after Wyman's death, but Cohan said he never received it. So that means the U.S. Post Office has been loosing packages for a very very LONG time!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Happy Birthday Harry Blackstone Jr

The SAM Facebook Page posted that today, June 30th was Harry Blackstone Jrs 80th Birthday. I can hardly wrap my head around that. Wow. I still remember when Harry passed away suddenly and that was shock enough. But to think he would have been 80 today is amazing.

I sure miss that guy. He was the first professional big name magician I ever saw live. I still remember that day as if it just happened. He was an amazing performer and from what I've heard he was quite a fine human being as well. I wish I had known him.

Happy Birthday Harry!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Robert Heller's Magnifecent Peacock

Robert Heller and his Peacock Automaton

As fascinated as I am by Heller, I must now admit, I also have an odd fascination for the so-called Peacock Automaton. I had seen one in the collection of Ken Klosterman (Salon de Magie) and assumed it was Robert-Houdin's Peacock. In his book 'The Memoirs of Robet-Houdin', the author mentions seeing the 'magic peacock' in a show presented by Phillipe. Researching this unusual creature I found that according to Harry Houdini, Robert-Houdin claimed to have created it. But Houdini, in his book 'The UnMasking of Robert-Houdin' makes the claim that Houdin did not create it but rather ripped it off.

Actually, it appears that though there were Automaton Peacocks prior to the Houdin version, his was different in operation and mechanics, so Houdini got that one wrong. I actually assumed, like Houdini, that all these birds were the same. But their appearance is deceiving. They do share a few attributes, one being the realistic look of a peacock and the ability to take the tail feathers and raise them and spread the giant plumage for display. But that is where the similarities stop.

from 1815
There is a playbill from 'The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin' that belongs to Mr. Louis's Royal, Mechanical, and Optical Exhibition. The bird figures prominently on the playbill with the following description. "A Superb Mechanical Peacock-As Large as Life, In it's Natural Plumage! Which imitates, so closely, the Cries, Actions, and Attitudes of that stately and beautiful Bird, that it is not infrequently supposed to be an absolute Animal properly trained to act as an Amusing Deception."The playbill dates to 1815, certainly before Robert-Houdin was born, as Houdini points out.

An even earlier playbill from 1803, belonging to a performer named de Philipsthal, also from 'The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin' reads as follows, "The MECHANICAL PEACOCK, which exactly imitates the Actions of that flately Bird, that is has frequently been thought Alive. It eats, drinks & at command, unfold its Tail in a brilliant circle, and in every respect seems endowed with an intuitive Power of attending to the Thoughts of the Company." Frankly, that sounds pretty amazing to me.

I believe the Robert-Houdin bird was different from the above automatons and I base this on the illustration used by Heller and a similar illustration used by another Robert-Houdin imitator. Let me point out that Robert Heller began his career by doing an act which was essentially a duplication or imitation of Robert-Houdin.

Heller obtained his props from a mechanic named LeGrand who worked for Robert-Houdin. This is the same man who sold props to John Henry Anderson as well. This duplication of props was going on behind the back of Robert-Houdin, and when he found out he called the authorities and LeGrand faced prison time because of his theft. But the damage had already been done and untold props from the Houdin show were now out and being used by his competitors. These included: The Ethereal Suspension, The Fantastic Orange Tree, the Peacock, and numerous other automaton.

Other performers of the time had Automaton Peacocks in their shows which can be seen in their advertisements. I think some of these were like the automatons listed above, true actual automatons, clock-work mechanical devices that could imitate a few actions of the bird. But the Robert-Houdin automaton appears to not be a true automaton, but rather what is referred to as a false automaton. This means it was partly mechanical but also relied upon human aid to perform it's functions. If the Heller illustration is any indication, the bird sat upon a raised platform and was able to grab selected playing cards with it's beak. It probably also moved it's head and raised it's plumage, but the action of grabbing a selected card may have been the work of a hidden assistant. That doesn't lesson the impact of the effect and to my way of thinking, is just as much a mechanical marvel as the others. Houdin was known to use both true automaton and false automaton in his show, so it makes possible that the Peacock was a false automaton. And Heller, who had purchased duplicate props of Houdin, was using The Harlequin as well as the Peacock, and the Harlequin was also a false automaton.

While doing research online for this article I came across a photo for an item listed as The
Magnificent Peacock. I found this same image on several sites, including Pinterest. The first place I found it was All of the pages are unsure of it's origins and they only speculate as to the date of manufacture. One website in particular has a different photo but it's very blurry. It shows that the red base in the photo is actually on an ornate raised wooden or medal pedestal. What is amazing to me is, this looks exactly like an image I saw on one of the Robert-Houdin imitator's posters. So this image to the right could actually be a piece out of a magic show.

For those who might be curious, in the late 1800s, a company called Roulette & Decamps out of Paris France was producing the Peacock Automaton for the general public. They made three versions of the Peacock, a small, a medium and a larger version with a music box inside. All three of their Peacocks had the ability to walk, moves its head and raise it's plumage. One of the Roulette & Decamps Automatons can be seen in the video below. By the way, the Peacock in the Klosterman collection is one of these Roulette & Decamps Automatons. It is identical to the bird in the video, so my initial assumption that it was Robert-Houdin's was incorrect.

*I don't have access to all of the Robert-Houdin books on magic, so I'm unsure if his Peacock and it's workings were listed in a book I missed. If anyone knows and can enlighten me, please do. I make an assumption that Houdin's automaton was a false one, which I also found similar statements online. But with Houdin's knowledge of clockworks, it's just as possible the bird was 100% mechanical. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Heller, Houdini and more

Photo taken during Houdini's visit to the grave in 1910

My fascination with Robert Heller began with Houdini. Specifically, the image of Houdini next to Heller's grave. Houdini referred to Heller in his Conjurer's Monthly Magazine, as "the most versatile magician who ever lived." Had it not been for Houdini, the whereabouts of Heller's grave would be likely be lost forever because it was Houdini who had rediscovered the grave.

When I began to research Heller back in 2011, I had no idea I would become so fascinated by the man. He is certainly an interesting character. I had done a ton of research on him and thought I had uncovered about all there was to uncover, but it turns out I was very wrong. I came across a wealth of new material this weekend on Heller, including playbills and posters and some images and illustrations that I'm not sure have seen the light of day for a very long time. So I will be delving back into the life of William Henry Palmer aka Robert Heller, to see what new mysteries and insight can be uncovered. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy the new photo of the Heller grave, taken in 1910, very possibly by Houdini. And enjoy the poster below, it's a beauty. All three images come from a Houdini scrapbook.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

New Resource For Researching Victorian Magic History & More

This may be the coolest thing to happen to magic since the Top Hat!!!! Seriously, I am loving this new addition to It's called "Victorian Popular Culture" and in their own words 'it is an essential resource for the study of popular entertainment in the 19th and early 20th centuries.'

Though it is not strictly magic oriented, it does represent conjuring quite well. I was looking at the list of participating libraries and they include the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas where a great deal of Houdini owned scrapbooks reside. Also, they list The Senate House at the University of London which contains items from the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature.

In addition, they cover Spiritualism, so anyone interested in that topic (NORMAN), might want to delve into it. There is a section on Music Halls, Theater and Popular Entertainment, a section on Circuses, Sideshows and Freaks, and a section on early Motion Pictures.

How in depth this is I don't really know yet. I just recently stumbled upon it. But AskAlexander is such a valuable resource that I would have to say this new addition must be great otherwise they would not have included it. I'm assuming you must be a member of to access the site. IF you are a member and have not looked into this new resource, please do! From what I have seen so far it will be a great tool when researching our unique art for historical purposes.

This is the link to get there, though if not a member the link may not work for you.

UPDATE: I just discovered this service 'Victorian Popular Culture' is a paid feature. So if you don't have an account/membership with The Conjuring Arts Research Library, you won't be able to view it, sorry. I did not realize that at first. I was able to view it because all Genii Subscribers were able to see it up until June 15th. Needless to say, June 16th, no go! lol. Genii Magazine used to run their online version of the magazine through But now they have gone to their own portal, so it's no longer available for us to access. However, does offer very reasonably priced monthly subscriptions to their site so for as little as $10 a month you can view the 'Victorian Popular Culture' portal plus lots of other great research tools offered by and the Conjuring Arts Research Library.